Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE CRITICS WERE WRONG


Patti LuPone, Bob Gunton and Mandy Patkinin, the original leads of Evita (1979).


Bold statement, right? It’s also the name of a now out-of-print book that I’ve had on my shelf for twenty-five years which bares the full title The Critics Were Wrong: The 501 Most Misguided Movie Reviews — And Film Criticism Gone Wrong. It consists of a litany of nasty quotes that appear under chapter headings like “Maligned Masterpieces,” “Trashed Treasures” and the final one “Were They Really That Bad?” which concerns itself with what it calls “savage overreactions to good movies.” It’s fun, but the feeling it brings up is that most of these nay-sayers were less interested in reviewing than being contrary. How do you pan To Kill a Mockingbird or The 400 Blows or Rosemary’s Baby, which to most people are near-perfect examples of their distinctive genres and performance? Everything is a matter of taste, but when you’re in a distinct minority and call The Wizard of Oz “a light touch of fantasy that weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet” (Variety, 1939), you’re a Grinch.


Those films managed to find success in spite of such drivel, as have a number of Broadway shows where the critics were overridden by audiences who chose for themselves what they wanted to see. Case in point, Evita, which opened in 1979 to generally poor reviews: Walter Kerr in the New York Times wrote: “You go home wondering why the authors chose to write a musical about materials they were then going to develop so remotely, so thinly.” Or Douglas Watt in the Daily News, who snidely commented: “There’s a great gap in the middle of Evita, and the theme of the gap is Evita… For that matter, there’s not much around the gap, either.”


According to Steve Suskin in the second volume of his invaluable reference books, Opening Nights on Broadway, Evitaopened to one rave, zero favorable, one mixed, two unfavorable and one outright pan. Surely this made for a tough discussion when the show’s producer Robert Stigwood, its director Harold Prince, and the marketers, gathered the morning after its opening night to come up with an ad campaign. An excellent television commercial came first, positive word of mouth came second, and the seven Tonys that it won over eight months later, including Best Musical, sealed the deal.


Evita ran for nearly four years.


Before the pandemic shut it down, Wicked had been enjoying an uninterrupted sixteen-years of sold out performances (mostly at full prices with few postings at the discount TKTS booth). But the following reviews were presumably not read aloud at its opening night party: “Wicked, the ‘prequel’ to The Wizard of Oz, is an interminable show with no dramatic logic or emotional center (Howard Kissel, Daily News); “A strenuous effort to be all things to all people tends to weigh down this lumbering, overstuffed $14 million production” (Charles Isherwood, Variety); and Ben Brantley in the all-important New York Times, spent most of his review praising its Galinda, Kristin Chenoweth, stating how “she provides the essential helium in a bloated production that might otherwise spend close to three hours flapping its oversized wings without taking off.”


The phenomenal poster design that branded Wicked (ad agency Serino-Coyne).


Interestingly, when in 2012, Brantley put together a book titled Broadway Musicals: From the Pages of the New York Times, he was obligated to include Wicked, reprinting his unfavorable review in full, due to it having fulfilled the book’s criteria as “one of the most important Broadway productions.” So there.


To look back on the history of theatre critics it’s important to bring up the old tradition that forced them to review a play or musical the very night of its premiere. This was when gentlemen (no women in the ranks), dressed in jackets and ties, had to rush up the aisle to get to their typewriters in their newsrooms and quickly crank out copy. It’s hard to imagine how tough it was to formulate constructive and cogent criticism under that kind of pressure. Perhaps it’s why so many took a no-holds-barred approach and slammed things more brutally than if they’d been given more time. The same goes for over-praising as well. In the early 1970s, this practice began to dissipate, with critics attending previews and spending a day or two to mull over their thinking. Producers had no control over this and most pined wistfully for the good old days. Frank Rich, once the all-powerful New York Times theatre critic, reported on this in Hot Seat, his 1998 book of collected reviews, where he described how in 1980, the Shubert Organization attempted to force the issue. “One of the many old wives’ tales among aged Broadway hands, was that critics would write more favorable reviews with more quotable quotes if pumped full of deadline adrenaline and subjected to the cheers of a full house of backers.”


Al Hirschfeld with fellow NY Times compatriot (and friend) Brooks Atkinson, racing up the aisle at a curtain call.


For anyone who has attended an opening night or two as I have, there’s a game to be played in pointing out a critic by what they look like and then, with furtive glances, attempt to decipher their stone-faced responses. Tough, since they never applaud and offer little signs to their thinking. For producers, it must feel the same as when a jury enters to deliver a verdict and refuse to send signals to the defense on whether they’re about to convict the attorney’s client or not. Again, according to Rich: “In truth a critic learns to tune out any audience response in reaching his own judgment. The old opening-night system was deplored by many critics, who often had to miss the end of a show to make a deadline and felt it unfair to review artists’ work as it were a fire or a sporting event.”


It may be a shock to discover that due to the old practice the venerable Brooks Atkinson, once Rich’s predecessor at theNew York Times, was forced to flee no less an evening in the theatre than the opening night in 1947 of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Having to head out before the final curtain, Atkinson unthinkably missed Blanche DuBois being taken away and speaking perhaps the play’s most famous line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” However, having already bathed in the language and drama of Williams’ play, it didn’t prevent Atkinson from writing an unqualified rave, though he does make mention that the play “is too long.” And it’s interesting to read a follow-up he wrote the following Sunday in which he goes into detail on what transpires in the play’s final scene (writing that he had the opportunity to read the play, though without acknowledging his hasty exit the week before).


Since Atkinson was right on the money with Streetcar, let me conclude with one example — among thousands I could have chosen — when the critics got it wrong. It concerns one of my favorite plays (and something of a masterpiece), Harold Pinter’s “comedy of menace” The Birthday Party. What little plot there is takes place at a run-down rooming house run by Meg and Petey and their one guest, Stanley, along the seedy British coast. Out of nowhere two men come for Stanley “for betraying the organization,” torture him slowly and efficiently, then lead him away in a catatonic state. And yes, it is indeed a comedy (of sorts). First produced in 1958, when Pinter was a twenty-eight year-old struggling actor (working under the stage name David Baron), the Evening Standardreview stated: “Sorry, Mr Pinter, you’re just not funny enough,” with no other critics offering a word of praise for it. Then, Harold Hobson, a widely respected critic of the day, wrote an extremely favorable review. Sadly, it was published after the play had closed. In a quick reversal of fortune, and as reported in a 2003 article in the Guardian, “TV producer Peter Willes read the play and summoned Pinter, greeting him with the words: ‘How dare you?’ Pinter was bewildered. He went on: ‘I’ve read your bloody play and I haven’t had a wink of sleep for four nights.’ When the TV version went out on March 22 1960, it was watched by an audience of 11 million and the Daily Herald summed up the turnaround with the headline: ‘Stage Flop is Big Hit.’”



Pinter’s career was launched, and London audiences were treated to well received productions of The Caretaker and The Homecoming, now considered classics. Both transferred to New York with much of their original casts, only to have The Caretaker (1961) close in four months, met mostly by yawning indifference. Better luck was achieved five years later by The Homecoming (1966), which won the Tony for Best Play and became Pinter’s first critical and commercial hit in America. It paved the way to finally bring The Birthday Party to Broadway in the fall of 1967 — only to have it close in three months. Critics were back to being puzzled and unenthused by Pinter’s refusal to wrap things up in a pretty little bow. William Goldman in his landmark book The Season, which covered the 1967–68 Broadway season in exquisite detail, devoted a chapter to The Birthday Party. He quotes the New York Times in their description of Pinterism as “maximum tension through minimum information,” then goes on to cite how the play’s “frustrating lack of facts infuriated the Wednesday-matinee ladies.” In a conversation he either actually overheard (or made up), the dialogue below does as good a job as any of explaining the problems with producing Pinter then and now:


First Woman: “It’s about the terrors of everyday life.”

Second Woman: “I don’t get that so much.”


Of course, in the end, everyone’s a critic.


If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.